Yue Fei (Yueh Fei) - Chinese General

Yue Fei (Yueh Fei) - Chinese General
Yue Fei (Yueh Fei) - Chinese General
Yue Fei is one of the most famous and admired figures in Chinese history. His parents were farmers in present day Henan (Honan) province. Growing up he was acutely aware of the brutal power of the nomadic Jurchens, who frequently raided his region. In 1122 he joined a daredevil corps of the army.

In 1127 the Jurchen Jin (Chin) dynasty sacked Kaifeng (K’ai-feng), the Song (Sung) dynasty capital, carrying off to the wilds of Manchuria Song; Huizong (Hui-tsung), his heir; and 3,000 members of his family and court.

One of Huizong’s younger sons escaped capture and rallied loyalists in resistance against the Jurchens, retreating to South China, until they established a government in Hangzhou (Hangchou) near the coast in modern Zejiang (Chekiang) province 10 years later.

That prince reigned as Gaozong (Kao-tsung) of the Southern Song dynasty. Yue Fei was the most courageous, popular, and successful general, who trained and led a well-disciplined army of over 100,000 men. Volunteers flocked to join his ranks, his soldiers calling themselves the “Yue Family Army.”

They campaigned against local bandits who had risen in the wake of the collapse of central authority, earning gratitude of people in affected areas. They also took the offensive aggressively against Jin troops, recovering lost territory into the Yellow River valley, raising morale among the Chinese and hope of recovering lost lands.

Yue’s actions and popularity did not suit Gaozong and his chief councilor Qin Gui (Ch’in Kuei), who secretly began peace negotiations with the Jin in 1138, because his successes stood in their path. Gaozong might have been genuinely doubtful of ultimate success in war. He also stood to lose personally if Yue defeated the Jin and forced them to return the captive Huizong and his heir (who was Gaozong’s elder brother, and therefore the rightful ruler).

Qin Gui was by all accounts a power-hungry politician who staked his future on peace with the Jin, who may have demanded Yue’s elimination as their condition for peace. In 1141 Yue was relieved of his command (as were several other successful anti-Jin generals) and jailed for insubordination and malfeasance.

No credible evidence could be produced against him, so Qin Gui gave an order to have him poisoned in jail, and his eldest son, a promising young officer and a key lieutenant, was executed. His widow and remaining children were sent to harsh exile. The Song government destroyed most documents concerning his official career.

Qin Giu retained power until he died in 1155. In 1661 changes in court politics led to the total rehabilitation of Yue Fei and surviving members of his family returned from exile. Yue’s body, secretly taken from the prison by sympathetic jailers, was exhumed and buried with honor.

Thus began the cult of Yue Fei, as a great patriot and a rallying hero of Chinese nationalism. His mother was also honored as an unselfish role model; she had tattooed four characters on his back that read, “Requite the state to the limits of loyalty.”

His wife was also admired for helping the families of those who served under him, and for keeping the family together after the tragedy of his death. Popular opinion made Yue a semimythical figure, Gaozong less than a filial son and courageous leader, and Qin Gui and his powerful wife despicable moral cowards.

Zen (Ch’an) Buddhism

Zen (Ch’an) Buddhism
Zen (Ch’an) Buddhism
Zen is a form of Buddhism that concentrates on calm, reflective forms of meditation in the quest for enlightenment. The word Zen, by which the school is known in Japan, derives from the Sanskrit word dhyana, which means “meditation.” Dhyana took root in China and was translated into the Chinese character ch’an.

Zen is the Japanese pronunciation of ch’an, while it is also known in Korean as Seon and in Vietnamese as Thien. The same basic principles and provenance of the school apply to each country where Zen Buddhism has come to be practiced, although it has developed slightly differently in each country over the years.

The essence of Zen Buddhism is that the capability to attain the Buddhahood—to recreate the enlightenment of Gautama Buddha—exists within all people but remains latent because of ignorance of its presence. It is, consequently, a branch of Mahayana Buddhism.

To liberate the potential for enlightenment, the best method is to penetrate mundane, rational thought to achieve a sudden transcendent understanding. Training in the way to achieve this should be transmitted from a Zen master to a student individually and is known as satori.

All other activities, such as studying scriptures, proper behavior, and charitable works, prescribed by different schools of Buddhist thought are held to be less valuable approaches to enlightenment and may in fact be worthless.

The originator of Zen Buddhism is believed to be the Indian monk Bodhidharma, who resided in China in the sixth century. Bodhidharma is said to be the 28th patriarch of the Indian meditation school that was founded by the monk Kasyapa, to whom the lord Buddha revealed his enlightened nature directly. Bodhidharma continued the practice of passing authority over the school through subsequent patriarchs, the first of whom was Hui-ko.

By the end of the reign of the fifth patriarch, the school began to suffer from schisms and it was a branch of the so-called Southern school that took root in Japan. This featured students’ concentrating on koan (or kung-an in Chinese), which are apparently contradictory aphorisms, which, when resolved, can lead the mind to sudden enlightenment.

In some schools, the focus on koan was assisted by the Zen master’s slapping the face of the student or emitting unexpected shouts to help intensify the mind’s activity. Other schools favored the zazen method of sitting quietly.

Zen spread slowly from China and was established in Japan in the 12th century. Many of the warrior class practiced Zen and lent their support to its protection. The monk Dogen, who founded his own temple in Japan after having achieved enlightenment in China while in the zazen position, led further development.

Zhao Kuangyin (Chao K’uang-yin)

Zhao Kuangyin (Chao K’uang-yin)
Zhao Kuangyin (Chao K’uang-yin)
Zhao Kuangyin, founder of the Song (Sung) dynasty (960–1289), is better known by his posthumous title Song Taizu (T’ai-tsu), which means “Grand Progenitor of the Song.” China was plunged into half a century of turmoil after the fall of the Tang (T’ang) dynasty in 909. From 909 to 960 five ephemeral dynasties contended for power in North China while 10 regional kingdoms struggled with one another in the south.

The last of the five dynasties was called the Later Zhou (Chou); it only lasted for 10 years (951–960) because when the founder died, he left the throne to his young son under the boy’s mother as regent. When a nomadic people called Khitan invaded, she ordered General Zhao Kuangyin commander of troops to battle against them.

After one day on the march the troops mutinied and demanded that Zhao become emperor. He agreed on condition that they did not harm the Later Zhou royal family, then they marched back to the capital city Kaifeng (K’ai-feng) and Zhao was proclaimed emperor of the Song dynasty.

Taizu was a military commander and understood that he owed his throne to his officers, who could just as easily unseat him. He also understood that he needed the army to reunify China because parts of the north and the entire south were not under his control. He took care of his dual problem immediately in the following way.

He held a banquet for his top officers and, after much drinking, persuaded them to hand over their commands in return for retirement on generous pensions. After securing their agreement he allowed them to build lavish mansions in the capital (where they were under surveillance) and ensured their continued allegiance by intermarriages among their respective families.

He promoted loyal junior officers to command, rotated units to secure imperial control, and proceeded to reunify China with relatively little bloodshed. Taizu’s mother was a wise woman.

She feared overthrow of the new Song dynasty should Taizu (who was only 32 when he became emperor) die and be followed by a young and inexperienced son, as had happened to the Later Zhou.

Zhao Kuangyin
Zhao Kuangyin

Therefore she made her family agree to her plans on the succession on her deathbed in 961—that Taizu would be succeeded by his younger brother, who was also an experienced general. By the time the younger brother, who ruled as Taizong (T’ang-tsung), died in 997, the Song dynasty was well established.

The brothers were able administrators who worked to centralize the administration and to establish civilian control over the military. They expanded the examination system and recruited civil officials down to the county level from those who had passed the exams, which were based on the Confucian Classics.

Taizu was content not to attempt the reconquest of northeastern and northwestern China, which had been under the Tang empire, but were then ruled by nomad states. The institutions and the tone of government set by the Taizu would endure through the Song dynasty.

Zheng He (Cheng Ho) - Chinese Explorer

Zheng He (Cheng Ho) - Chinese Explorer
Zheng He (Cheng Ho) - Chinese Explorer

Zheng He was born into a Muslim family named Ma in Kunying, Yunnan province. At the beginning of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), a number of generals fighting on the frontiers were put in charge of recruiting eunuchs for the court. When Yunnan was pacified in 1381, Zheng He, then aged around 10, was castrated and assigned to the retinue of Prince Zhu Di (Chi Ti) in Beijing (Peking).

As a young man, Zheng He accompanied Zhu Di and distinguished himself in a series of military campaigns against the Mongols. During the rebellion (1399–1402) by means of which the prince usurped the throne, Zheng He played an important role, culminating in the capture of the capital city Nanjing (Nanking).

Amid the conflagration, the dethroned emperor Zhu Yunwen (Chu Yun-wen) reportedly escaped. The suspicion that he might have been wandering abroad became one of the reasons Zhu Di, now Emperor Yongle (Yung-lo), launched a number of maritime expeditions led by his trusted eunuch, who was given the surname Zheng in 1404.

Preparations for the first voyage included the construction of oceangoing vessels of various sizes and the recruitment and training of the crew and staff of specialists. In 1405 more than 300 vessels and a crew of 27,800 men set out from the lower Yangzi (Yangtze) estuary and headed south along the coastal waters of Southeast Asia. After pacifying the troubled waters of the Malacca Strait, the fleet crossed the Indian Ocean and reached the port of Calicut on the Malabar coast of southern India.

The second expedition (1407–09) followed the same route as the first, adding visits to several states along the coasts of Vietnam, Thailand, Java, and the nearby islands as well as Ceylon (Sri Lanka). The third expedition (1409–11) explored the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, the Sulu Archipelago, and Borneo before reaching the same destinations as the previous voyage.

chinese oceangoing vessels
chinese oceangoing vessels

The fourth voyage (1413–15) expanded its reach to include the Maldives, Hormuz, the Hadramaut coast, and Aden. During the fifth voyage (1417–19), Mogadishu, Brawa, and Malindi in East Africa were added to the itinerary, and many rare species of plants and animals were brought back to the capital Beijing. The sixth voyage (1421–22) ventured south along the East African coast with visits to Zanzibar and probably Kilwa, located below the equator.

In 1424 Emperor Yongle died and criticism of the expensive voyages grew louder in the court. However, the new emperor, Xuande (Hsuan-te), wanted to launch yet another expedition in order to revive China’s tributary relations with the many states established heretofore. After many delays, Zheng He departed on his seventh and last voyage in 1431. His death in Calicut in 1434 ended the whole enterprise.

During a period of 28 years, China displayed a remarkably advanced maritime technology, which led to increased contact with scores of states and regions from the Malay Archipelago in the east to East Africa in the west.

Voyages of Zheng-He
Voyages of Zheng-He

Besides establishing diplomatic relations through the exchange of gifts and visits by foreign rulers to the Chinese capital, more markets were opened up for Chinese products, especially silks and porcelains. A brilliant commander, diplomat, and explorer, Zheng He made voyages that broadened China’s geographical horizons, and the maritime trade enriched its domestic economy during the heyday of the Ming dynasty

Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi) - Chinese Scholar

Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi) - Chinese Scholar
Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi) - Chinese Scholar
Zhu Xi was a prominent Song (Sung) dynasty Neo-Confucian scholar who taught at the White Deer Grotto Academy and, by completing the second wave of canonizing Confucian learning, created a program of education and self-cultivation that became the official standard for the Chinese civil service examinations from 1313 until 1905.

The son of a Confucian scholar-administrator, Zhu proved a highly precocious youth who in his teens was attracted to Zen (Ch’an) Buddhism, while concurrently preparing himself for the civil service examinations. Passing the highest regular examination (jinshi) at the age of 18, he embarked on a career combining periods of official service with longer periods of teaching and writing.

Zhu’s greatness consisted in his ability to formulate a unified system of thought integrating both the contributions of his Song predecessors and the popular Buddhist and Taoist principles that had made significant inroads into China with the long line of traditional Confucian teachings.

Moreover Zhu codified as basic texts of the Confucian school the Four Books—the Meng-Zi, Daxue (Great Learning), Zhong Yong (Doctrine of the Mean), and the Analects—and wrote exhaustive interpretations of every sentence in the Four Books, called the Annotations.

His philosophy, often identified as the Cheng-Zhu school (since his most influential predecessor was Cheng Yi), emphasizes the doctrines of li (principle), qi (vital force), Xing or hsing (the nature of all things), xin or hsin (the human heart-mind), and Tai-Qi (tai-chi or the Great Ultimate) in an attempt to reorient education toward moral practice.

Zhu argued that li is the unchanging and eternal principle of being, order, and pattern (encompassing both universal and particular elements) that brings all essences into being and comprises the moral structure of the universe.

These essences are actualized by qi, the psychophysical vital force or simultaneously material and immaterial substance of the universe, which animates or fills out the individual patterns created by li.

Zhu Xi Statue
Zhu Xi Statue
The source and sum of these two universal elements (li and qi) is the tai-qi, which also causes qi to move and change in the physical world, resulting in the division of the world into the two energy modes (yin and yang) and the five elements (fire, water, wood, metal, and earth).

Hence qi is not found equally in all things (including humans), and the fact that people have various endowments of qi accounts for their ethical differences (for example, some understand and follow morality easily, while others must strive to realize moral principles).

Zhu’s system is a modified dualism because li and ch’i are interdependent, where a symbiotic relationship between the two furnishes the constitution of human beings. By defining humanity as the conjunction of Mencius’s concepts hsin and hsing, or the original heart-mind, and then identifying hsin-hsing with li, Zhu rendered human nature as intrinsically good, yielding the four moral sprouts of loyalty, respect, obedience, and honesty, and a microcosm of the supreme ordering principle resident throughout the universe. Resembling the idea of a Buddha-mind, Zhu claimed, all humans have the potential for perfection, but evil arises through the clouding effect of li being shrouded by ch’i.

For Zhu the mind of every person contains two dimensions: the mind of the Way, or the original intrinsic principled goodness that links the person directly with the tai-qi, and the human mind, or the ch’i-filled arena, where conflict arises between hsin-hsing (the original mind) and carnal desires.

Zhu’s method for overcoming this psychophysical imbalance consisted in the investigation of things and internal cultivation. Following the Daxue, Zhu held that the investigation of things was a fourfold process.

First one must apprehend the principles of things, or affairs such as matters of conduct, human relations, and political problems, that makes them one. Second one must read and reflect on the literature in which such principles are revealed, including the 13 Confucian Classics, and live according to an active ethical regimen that could develop to the fullest the virtue of humaneness, or jen.

It is through jen that one overcomes selfishness and partiality, enters into all things in such a way as to identify oneself fully with them, and thus unites oneself with the Mind of the universe, which is love and creativity itself. Through his discussion of the traditionally impersonal T’ien, or heaven, as an intelligent Mind or ordering will behind the universe, Zhu introduced a quasi-theistic tendency within Confucianism.

Third, one must become a lover of learning and study history; here we see in Zhu a kind of positivism that affi rms, contra Buddhism, the reality of things and reinforces the traditional Confucian emphasis upon the objective validity of scholarship. Fourth, one must study one’s own experience, or perform an “exegesis of one’s life,” by making oneself aware of the principles that cause things to happen.

By internal cultivation, Zhu meant that one must spend part of each day in contemplation and self-reflection upon one’s daily behavior in light of what one learned from the Classics, and that one must develop a reverence or sense of awe toward the universe and an inner-mental attentiveness through the technique of quiet sitting (reaching stillness of thought through meditation).

Zhu-Xi Memorial Museum
Zhu-Xi Memorial Museum

Although Zhu’s service at the royal court was brief, with much of it limited to lectures and memorials conveying the most general sort of advice to the emperor, he spent considerable time in local administration as a social reformer.

His work included the improvement of agricultural methods and schools, the establishment of charitable granaries, famine relief, and community organizations, and the rehabilitation of local academies. As a result, Zhu suffered severe political persecution from the more conservative authorities, such that the canonical status of his teachings, albeit widely accepted by contemporary scholars, would not be officially certified for some years later.

In the 14th century Zhu’s teachings became the official orthodoxy of China (an assessment lasting until the early 20th century) and likewise became accepted in Japan and Korea as the most complete and authoritative exposition of Confucianism. Therefore, they exerted a profound influence on the whole cultural development of East Asia well into the modern period.



As with much of southern Africa, the earliest inhabitants of what is now the country of Zimbabwe were the nomadic San peoples, who led a life in search of game and edible vegetation about 20,000 years ago.

Later the Khoi-Khoi people, pastoralists with herds, entered the region. The two cultures fused into the Khoisan people, who have shown an amazing degree of adaptation to one of the world’s most forbidding climates: the Kalahari Desert.

By approximately 500 the Bantu arrived as the Gokomere people, climaxing the long Bantu migration from the central Sahara, which was most likely caused by the country’s turning into desert and driving out the livestock-herding Bantus. Whether this was the cause of overgrazing or an early example of global climate change is unclear.

The settlements at Mapungubwe in the Limpopo River valley date from the 10th century, although archaeologists have found evidence from as remote as the third century. By 1175 Mapungubwe had become the center of a small kingdom whose population was devoted to raising livestock.

Gold, however, is what drew Arab traders originally to the region. The region became involved in trade throughout the world, as John Reader notes in Africa: A Biography of the Continent, “glass beads made in India and Egypt testify to the community’s involvement in long-distance trade.”

Sometime during this era of Bantu migration to the region, the great stone, cyclopean structures of Zimbabwe, Khami, and Dhlo-Dhlo were built, the Stonehenges of southern Africa. It was buildings like these, and the legends that grew up around them, that led Victorian author H. Rider Haggard to write his classic adventure novels She, King Solomon’s Mines, and Allan Quartermain.

Ruin of Dhlo-Dhlo
Ruin of Dhlo-Dhlo

John Reader writes, “At the time of its pre-eminence in the fifteenth century, at least 11,000 and as many as 18,000 people are said to have lived at Great Zimbabwe.” Reader notes that Zimbabwe was built between 1275 and 1550.

By the 14th century the Bantus had created the Mutapa empire, which would reach to the East African coast at Mozambique. Even before this, Arab merchants were in large numbers in the coastal cities, creating an oceanic trade with what are now Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and east to India in their sailing ships, or dhows. Their voyages would be expertly timed with the monsoon seasons, which still dominate the region today.

By the 16th century the Portuguese, with their far more heavily armed caravels, dominated the trade on both coasts of Africa, building castles to protect their trading interests from the African chiefs and Arabs with whom they were in competition. In 1498 Vasco da Gama reached India, thus making Portugal the first of the European maritime trading empires.

On his voyage down the West African coast, he had seen Arab dhows picking up the vast amount of gold that the Mutapa empire and the Shonas sent to the coast, a product of the rich gold mining that was the greatest heritage of old Zimbabwe.

Abahai Khan - Manchu Military

Abahai Khan - Manchu Military
Abahai Khan - Manchu Military
Abahai (also named Hung Taiji) was the eighth son of Nurhaci, a Jurchen tribal chieftain who founded the Manchu state in what is today northeastern China. Elected by the Hosoi Beile, or council of clan princes and nobles, in 1623 to be his father’s successor, Abahai built upon his father’s foundations for a Manchu state during the last years of China’s Ming dynasty. In 1644, his son was proclaimed emperor of the Qing (Ch’ing) dynasty, assuming leadership of China as the Ming dynasty collapsed.

The Jurchen tribal people who lived in Manchuria, a frontier region of the Chinese Ming Empire, did not recognize the right of firstborn sons to succeed their fathers. Because of this, all the ruler’s sons were eligible to succeed him in an election by their fellow tribal leaders.

Abahai was elected and continued his father’s unfinished work. He expanded the powerful Banner Army that consisted of Manchu, Mongol, and Han Chinese units and used it to consolidate control of the Liaoyang area in southern Manchuria.

Next he used his military forces to subjugate Korea, forcing its government to transfer its vassal relationship from the Ming dynasty to him. Abahai then conquered the Amur region of northern Manchuria and the Mongols of eastern Mongolia. His next move was to set up a civil administration in the capital city of Shenyang in 1631.

The six ministries and other institutions he implemented were copied from the Ming government, and he staffed them with many Han Chinese administrators. In 1635, he gave his people a new name, Manchu (from Jurchen), and changed his dynastic name from Hou Jin (Hou Chin, adopted by Nurhaci, which means “Later Jin,” after the Jin dynasty that ruled northern China 1115–1234).

By this act, he disssociated his dynasty with the Jin, who had conquered northern China after much bloodshed. Instead he adopted the dynastic name Qing (or Ch’ing, which means “pure”), and he assumed the title emperor rather than khan, which had been his father’s title, because of its nomadic associations.

In 1640, Abahai attacked Jinzhou (Chinchow) at the southern tip of Manchuria, defeating a Ming force. This victory brought the Manchus to the key eastern pass of the Great Wall, Shanhaiguan (Shanhaikuan, or Mountain and Sea Pass). However, this formidable fortress was defended by a strong Ming army, and Abahai was not ready to challenge it. He died in 1643 before he could do so.

Abahai continued his father, Nurhaci’s, work of building up Manchu power, and he transformed the Manchus from a frontier tribal vassal of the Ming Empire to become its rival. Under his rule, a collaborative relationship developed among the Manchus, the Mongols, and the Han, or ethnic, Chinese.

The adoption of the Chinese model of a bureaucratic administration and its inclusion of Han Chinese would characterize the Qing Dynasty and account for its success in conquering and ruling China.

Abbas the Great of Persia

Abbas the Great of Persia
Abbas the Great of Persia

Shah Abbas the Great reigned from 1588 to 1629 during the zenith of Safavid glory and power. He effectively unified all of historic Persia and centralized the state and its bureaucracy.

Using loyal slave soldiers (ghulam) recruited among Caucasians, Abbas successfully destroyed the influence of the Qazilbash princes and extended Crown-owned land taken from defeated local rulers. With English advisers, he moved to reform the army into a successful fighting force.

In the Ottoman-Safavid Wars, Abbas was generally successful. He conquered northwest Persian and in 1623 took Baghdad and then Basra in southern present-day Iraq from the Ottomans. His forces seized Hormuz in the Persian Gulf in 1622, thereby extending Safavid power along this important seafaring trade route.

By the time Abbas came to power, the majority of the people in Safavid Persia, who had previously been Sunni Muslims, had become Shi’i. Qom and Mashad, sites holy in Shi’i tradition, were enlarged into centers for pilgrimages, and the veneration of Shi’i imams became widespread.

The martyrdom of Husayn, Ali’s son, was annually commemorated in massive passion plays and ceremonies; pilgrimages to Kerbala, in present-day Iraq, where Husayn had been killed, became a major event for devout Shi’i.

However, unlike many of his predecessors, Abbas encouraged religious tolerance. He encouraged foreign traders, especially Christian Armenians, who were known as skilled silk producers, to move to Iran. Although the sale of silk became a royal monopoly, Abbas provided Armenians financial inducements, including interest-free loans for building houses and businesses, to move to the outskirts of Isfahan.

In 1592, Abbas made Isfahan his new capital and turned it into a center for Safavid arts, culture, and commerce. Under Abbas, Isfahan’s population grew to more than one-half million people and became a major trading center.

He sent envoys to Venice, the Iberian Peninsula, and eastern Europe to encourage trade in luxury textiles and other goods; he also provided tax incentives to foreign traders. By 1617, the East India Trade Company had established trading posts along Persian Gulf, and Bandar Abbas became a major port. Along northern routes, the Safavids also enjoyed a lively trade with Russia.

As befitted 16th- and 17th-century monarchs, Abbas presided over a lavish court. He was the patron to numerous court poets and painters, even allowing portraits of himself and members of his court to be painted.

Like Suleiman I the Magnificent of the rival Ottoman Empire, Abbas, who had killed or blinded several of his sons, left no able successor. After his death, the Safavid empire entered into a century-long period of decline. It is a tribute to Abbas’s abilities as an administrator and leader that the empire survived as long as it did.

European Absolutism

European Absolutism
European Absolutism

Royal absolutism is a controversial concept among historians. There has been considerable debate about both the proper definition of the term and its applicability to the actual workings of European states in the early modern period.

Scholars have suggested that elements of absolutism appeared at one time or another in France, Russia, Spain, Austria, the German states, and other smaller entities, and that even England (after 1707, Britain) displayed some traits common to absolute monarchy.

At a most basic level, the term royal absolutism suggests a system of state administration centered on and dominated by a monarch as opposed to some other level of society or some other office or institution, and usually without legal or constitutional restraints.

It can be differentiated from the older medieval form of monarchy by its increasing independence from, or suppression of, the feudal apparatus that linked each person in a hierarchy of mutual obligation between higher and lower. An absolute monarch controlled the state directly, rather than being forced to rely on the cooperation of the nobility through a lord-vassal relationship.

Medieval monarchs usually had to contend with multiple challenges to their authority. These challenges included rival claimants to the throne, powerful nobles who could raise armies and funds independent of the sovereign, councils or parliaments that insisted on being heard, merchants and financiers who were more interested in profit than in paying taxes or serving political interests, towns that claimed immunity from certain controls, and frequent peasant uprisings.

Religious institutions, which were often wealthy and had great influence over the population, could also be tenacious in defending their independence from temporal authority.

In essence, the idea of an absolute ruler was developed as one solution to these problems. Rather than living in constant fear of their antagonists, or being forced to share power with them, an absolute monarch could create and maintain a powerful kingdom and rule it effectively.

James II

One of the problems with the study of royal absolutism in history is that too often the term absolute was used in a pejorative sense by those who opposed a particular ruler. This was true of both internal and external conflicts.

In the 1680s, for example, the groups in England who opposed the policies of James II accused him of attempting to establish an absolute monarchy that would disregard Parliament, reimpose Catholicism, and generally strip his subjects of their rights and liberties.

The English would also apply this label to Louis XIV in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, when England fought two wars against France. Even the term absolutism to describe a particular style of government was not coined until after the French Revolution, with the explicit purpose of discrediting the ancien régime.

The concept of a powerful ruler in a centralized state was not always viewed in a negative light, especially among some intellectuals of the 16th through 18th centuries. Three thinkers closely associated with the development of absolutism as a political theory are Jean Bodin (1530–96), Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), and Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627–1704).

Each was deeply influenced by the political circumstances of his time. Bodin and Hobbes were examining the nature of authority when it had clearly broken down; Bossuet was justifying a system developed in reaction to such crises, but which itself was subject to challenge.

Although their ideas were not necessarily representative of the opinions of their contemporaries, or of the realities of statecraft in early modern Europe, each work was widely known and read in its time and afterward.

Bodin’s Six Books of the Commonwealth first appeared in 1576, in the midst of the French Wars of Religion. Bodin undertook a sweeping study of various forms of government, taking care to distinguish between what he called royal monarchy, despotic monarchy, and tyranny. Despots generally violated the property rights of their subjects; tyrants were arbitrary and purely selfish.

Royal monarchy meant that a ruler, although entirely sovereign, would always seek to rule in the best interests of his subjects. There were no formal constitutional checks on power, but a paternal sense of duty to the welfare of the kingdom would guide the ruler’s actions.


The other limit on royal power evident in Bodin’s own time was the legislative or consultative body, such as the Estates General and parlements of France. All such legislative bodies claimed some rights and privileges from the sovereign.

The political history of France and England after Bodin’s time demonstrated that although rulers of those countries could circumvent Parliament and the Estates for extended periods of time, this eventually led to resistance and revolution.

Hobbes also lived in a turbulent age. Many of Hobbes’s most important political works, including De Cive, Leviathan (both published in 1651), and Behemoth (1681), were heavily influenced by the events surrounding the English Civil War, which ended with the execution of King Charles I.

In Leviathan, his best known work, Hobbes drew a lengthy analogy between a commonwealth and the human anatomy, in which the king is represented as the head and the rest of society as the body. He proceeded to set out his view of human nature unconstrained by government or communal moral standards.

In such a situation, he argued, there could be no guarantee of life or possessions except by violence. Human beings needed government to remove them from this state of nature, and the best government was the one that reduced violence and uncertainty the most.

This required people to surrender a portion of their individual liberty (either by making a covenant between themselves or by being conquered) to a single authority, which would be charged with the protection of their lives, property, and other retained rights. This authority could take one of three forms: monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy.

He argued that of these, monarchy was theoretically preferred, since it was least likely to degenerate into factional struggles and civil war. This monarchy, he continued, should not be elective (as in the Holy Roman Empire) or limited (as claimed in England), or else it was not a true monarchy, since the ultimate source of sovereignty lay with others.

Enlightened Self-Interest

Like Bodin, Hobbes argued that a true monarch would be restrained from acting in an arbitrary and wicked manner through reason and enlightened self-interest. Because the monarch was the embodiment of sovereignty, his or her private interest would be aligned with the public good. A wise ruler would seek counsel from those best equipped to provide it, but would always reserve the personal right to choose and implement the best policy.

Anticipating critics who would point to historical examples of rulers who did not concern themselves with the common good or the most reasonable policies, Hobbes repeatedly stated that whatever problems could be caused by the corruption of a single sovereign would simply be multiplied in an oligarchy or a democracy.

Bossuet’s Politics Derived from the Very Words of Holy Scripture (1709) was an exploration of the nature of kingly power as demonstrated in the Bible and in history. For a number of years Bossuet had served as the tutor to the Dauphin, the son and heir of Louis XIV, and he was thus highly interested in and knowledgeable about the workings of the French monarchy.

He proposed that the power of the king is “paternal,” “absolute,” and “subject to reason,” but he also added a “sacred” quality. The principle that temporal authority originates with God is found in many parts of the Bible, and most medieval European sovereigns were considered to be God’s anointed.

The doctrine of divine right kingship was invoked by 16th and 17th century rulers such as James VI and I of Scotland and England to justify their actions and to condemn resistance or questioning of their authority.

In France, the sacred quality of kingship had an added dimension: since the king was placed on the throne by God, resistance to his power was illegitimate and sinful; those who opposed the political or religious policies of the king, such as the Huguenots, should not be tolerated at all.

The Russian czar Ivan IV (reigned 1533–84) provides an early example of an attempt to centralize authority in the person of the ruler and circumvent existing institutions and controls. Ivan began his reign as the grand duke of Muscovy, but by 1547 he assumed the title of czar (emperor) of Russia.

In 1565, frustrated with the problems still facing his fragmented domains, Ivan created a separate administration under his personal control, the Oprichnina. Originally this was confined geographically to certain towns and parts of the countryside, but over time it grew in both size and scope.

Ivan IV’s reign illustrates two different concepts often associated with absolutism. The first is reform of the state, which included the creation of a standing army and a centralized bureaucracy responsible directly to the ruler, as well as a systematic overhaul of laws and institutions dating from feudal times. The second, despotic and arbitrary rule, was one of the primary reasons that many philosophers and statesmen feared and opposed anything resembling royal absolutism.

The one ruler who is most often associated with absolutism is Louis XIV of France (reigned 1643–1715). While it is true that the Sun King had a more powerful state apparatus at his disposal than his predecessors, and showed more vigor in running France than his immediate successors, he was not primarily responsible for creating the system he led.

France had been divided by internal political and religious wars in the 16th century, although the appearance of a strong ruler, Henry IV, began the process of healing the rifts and stabilizing the government—at least until Henry was assassinated in 1610. His successor, Louis XIII, was not as assertive, and by the 1620s he had effectively delegated much of his authority to Cardinal Richelieu.

Louis XIV may have consciously portrayed himself as an absolute ruler, but the daily reality of managing his kingdom was something quite different. He did not rid himself of all obstacles to his authority, but through a combination of compromise and assertiveness he was able to reduce the resistance of such bodies as the nobility, the parlements, and the church.

Louis XIV was only partially successful in establishing himself as the unquestioned master of his kingdom, and even less so in his attempt to act as the “arbiter of Europe.” In fact, scholars such as Nicholas Henshall argue that the lingering image of Louis XIV as an absolute monarch owes more to the perpetuation of a myth by English polemicists than to his actual behavior.

After the Glorious Revolution in 1688, Henshall says, absolutism came to be defined by the English as everything that their constitutional monarchy was not: French, Catholic, and despotic. This was a simplistic definition that ignored the continuing importance of the monarch in British politics and the real constraints on the power of the French king.

Even with all of the centralization and modernization associated with absolutism in this period, most states still remained a patchwork of different jurisdictions under the nominal control of a single crown. Spain, France, the Austrian empire, and Russia all had ancient internal divisions that no monarch could simply erase, no matter how much he or she might want to.